The risk of rider injuries and deaths could be reduced if the equestrian industry adopted tried-and-tested safety principles, according to researchers.
There would be benefits in adopting some safety-first principles and standards adopted by many high-risk workplaces, they said. These include safety training, risk assessment, improved communications and adequate supervision.
Researchers Meredith Chapman, Matthew Thomas and Kirrilly Thompson, writing in the journal Animals, said riders continue to debate what they think, believe, feel and value as superior safety-first principles during their dealings with horses.
Some of these varying opinions about how dangerous horses really are, and what should be done to minimise risk, appear to be determined by many different factors, they said.
The trio set out to explore what humans say about safety around horses and to identify what they perceived as important or less important to stay safe.
They found that some human safety choices were influenced by financial gain, level of experience and exposure to safety training.
“A significant percentage of participants accepted risk of human harm around horses, with some choosing to take risks for sport achievements,” they said, while others were willing to place their horse’s safety above their own.
Chapman and her colleagues noted the high rates of serious injuries, illness and fatalities in the equestrian industry when compared to other high-risk sports and work environments.
“For centuries,” they said, “horses have worked for humans, carrying them to war, ploughing their fields and providing a means of transportation.
“The human-horse relationship has now extended from a basic human-survival relationship, to one that uses horses for human social activities, therapy, sporting and as a means of financial income.
“However, humans continue to be exposed to ongoing risks during horse interactions.
“Regardless of previous research about the inherent dangers of horses and some behaviours that can cause serious injury or human fatality, humans will continue to domesticate equids (horses, mules and donkeys) for work or non-work purposes.
“To address these ongoing safety concerns, a greater understanding of the relationship between human risk perception, values and safety behaviours is required,” they said.
For their study, the authors undertook an international survey, promoted via social media, comprising 48 questions. The questions explored relationships between the riders’ willingness to take risks during daily activities along with their perceptions of risk and behaviours during their contact with horses.
In all, 1273 riders from 25 countries completed the entire survey. Ninety percent of respondents were women, with an average age of 45.
“Analysis identified three important findings,” the authors reported.
“First, safe behaviours around horses were associated with safety training (formal and/or informal). Second, unsafe behaviours around horses were associated with higher levels of equestrian experience as well as income from horse-related work.
“Finally, findings revealed a general acceptance of danger and imminent injury during horse interactions.”
This, they said, may explain why some respondents de-emphasised or “talked-down” the importance of safety-first principles.
Analysis of safety beliefs, values and interests revealed that 10.7% (136 of 1273 respondents) believed they were unable to control risks around horses.
A total of 159 individuals (12.5% of surveyed riders) agreed it was okay to drug a horse to make it safer to ride. “This belief raises a number of safety, legal and horse welfare concerns,” the authors said.
Most riders, 96.1%, were prepared to follow safety rules. A few respondents (3.6%) believed if a horse had a history of unsafe behaviours, it was still safe for an inexperienced rider.
Over a quarter of riders were willing to put their horse’s safety before their own.
The findings demonstrate that equestrian experience and income generation were associated with unsafe behaviours, whereas training was linked with positive safety behaviours.
“Respondents who derived an income from horse-related activities had an increased propensity to compromise their safety before that of their horse, not wear a helmet when riding a horse at home, and ride largely in a work or competitive context.”
In short, those who derived an income through horses chose to take more risks.
“This was particularly evident for those who self-rated high competency levels for horsemanship and riding skills.
“Safety trade-offs overshadowed by income, especially in competitive occupational and sporting environments, exposed a disregard for safety-first principles, despite the human knowing the harmful consequences.”
Discussing their findings, the authors said income-earning typically accelerated some human risk-taking opportunities in general sport, occupational settings and during some horse-related activities.
It may indicate that humans are more likely to abandon safety-first principles and are prepared to put themselves or others at a higher risk of injury or death, to obtain financial gain.
“More research in needed to identify the higher value humans place on income compared to their own life, their risk perceptions and willingness to accept this risk.”
The study showed that 36.2% of respondents were fully prepared to take some risks in their daily lives. Acceptance of risk in occupations and during sport leisure activities may explain why some humans accept the risk of being injured around horses.
Helmets, they noted, still reigned supreme over all other safety controls when humans interact with horses. However, improved safety usually requires more planning and implementation than protective gear, the researchers said.
“Some more effective (advanced) controls may include training, safe handling-riding procedures, talking about risks with horses, better handler-rider match, fit-for-purpose equipment, checking the environment and supervision needs, just to name a few.
“These safer processes build a more robust risk management program for safer human–horse interactions.”
Higher safety controls may take time to develop and apply, they said. “However, when coupled with sufficient handler-rider safety education and communications, more positive human safety-first values and beliefs will develop.”
The authors said the equestrian industry has the opportunity to learn from other high-risk sports and workplaces about risk reduction.
“There is no end date for the horse-human relationship. This interspecies connection will survive wars, famine, recessions and politics; it just continues to grow.
“Therefore, it is critical we learn now how to nurture and safely protect this human-horse relationship, because it adds countless value to society, individuals, and the equestrian industry.”
Chapman and Thomas are with the Appleton Institute, part of Central Queensland University; Thompson is with UniSA Business, part of the University of South Australia
Chapman, M.; Thomas, M.; Thompson, K. What People Really Think About Safety around Horses: The Relationship Between Risk Perception, Values and Safety Behaviours. Animals 2020, 10, 2222.